Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dealing With Difficult Dialogue

I'm managing to gradually get an earlier and earlier start on the day by setting my alarm clock (this is the only time of year when I seem to need to do that on days when I don't have to be somewhere). I still hit the snooze button for a while, but I still get up earlier, and I think the alarm going off in the first place is helping me reset my internal clock.

I have another reader question for this week's writing post, though I'm expanding it to cover a broader topic.

How do you deal with characters who have unusual speech patterns -- especially if there's a possibility that those speech patterns could be annoying to readers?

It's good when characters have distinct voices and have their own ways of talking. They may have accents or speak in a dialect, they may not be native speakers of whatever language predominates in your story, they could stammer or lisp, they could be hyper and run on at the mouth, they could fall heavily into technical jargon, they could have unusual catch phrases they repeat all the time. Those things are good, up to a point, but they're also the kinds of things that can bring a story to a screeching halt if readers have to stop and decipher it or that can turn off readers if they find the book just too annoying to get through.

The short answer is that you want to give enough of the distinctive speech to establish the character and give the proper flavor but not enough that it detracts from the story. Here are a few ways I've thought of to do that:

1) Remember the context.
Characters and the way they talk don't exist in a vacuum. They may alter the way they talk depending on circumstances. Other characters may also react to them, and that will change depending on the circumstances. The excitable technical expert who has to explain how the watch was made before he can give you the time has to interact with other people who may or may not put up with that. If he's the technical expert for a law enforcement team and seconds count, they're going to interrupt his hyper, long-winded explanation for what he's found and force him to get to the point. If he's already provided the vital clue for solving the crime and saved the day, the others may indulge him and let him explain at length how he found it. Depending on what else is going on in their lives, other characters may or may not feel compelled to complete sentences for a stammerer, cut off a long-winded person or correct a non-native speaker's mangled idioms. That gives you an excuse to show just enough of that speech pattern before cutting it off in time to avoid being annoying. For a movie example, think about the Joe Pesci character in the second Lethal Weapon movie, who would go on with, "Okay, okay, okay," and then some jabbering. The other characters were always interrupting him in mid-jabber, so we knew he was a jabberer, but we didn't have to spend a lot of time listening to him.

2) Don't forget about point of view.
The viewpoint character who's listening to this other person is going to have different perceptions. For one thing, if the viewpoint character speaks in the same dialect or language, he's probably not going to notice the language quirks. A Scotsman isn't going to notice all the "dinna ken" type stuff the way a non-Scotsman would. His brain is going to understand that as "don't know." Likewise, if all the characters are speaking a foreign language, you can assume that the book is the subtitles and you don't have to throw in random untranslated words.

With the potentially annoying speech patterns, the viewpoint character may hear the start, realize the other character will be babbling for a while and tune him out to think about or notice other things, tuning back in when it gets to the important stuff. That's another way of giving a hint without subjecting your reader to the whole thing. You could also have the viewpoint character mentally translating the other character's difficult to understand dialect or jargon.

3) Use just enough to get the point across.
It may be important that a character speaks in a particular way, but you never want a reader to have to read the dialogue out loud in order to decipher it. Pick one or two words or phrasings that will get the point across and use them consistently, then only add more in places where it's really crucial. If it's important to the plot that there's a communications breakdown, then by all means make that little part difficult to get through, but do that sparingly. If your character is a hyper babbler, establish that, then work around it (using the above methods) except for any particular scenes where there's a reason to have the hyper babbling.

4) Watch TV
You can get a good feel for how to handle different speech patterns by watching TV. A TV series has a limited amount of time to tell the story, so they can't waste it on extraneous stuff, and they also need to make the characters distinctive while making it possible to understand the characters, since you can't go back and re-read the dialogue if you don't understand it. Watch how they work in just enough speech quirks to make the differences clear without eating story time. This is especially good in any kind of "team," show, where they bring in people with different areas of expertise, like the computer expert, the scientist, the foreigner, the highly educated person, the tough guy, etc., who all have distinct ways of expressing themselves. Usually, the team leader will demand that the technical experts speak English after they spout a line or two of jargon, and they'll cut off the babblers to make them get to the point or finish sentences for hesitant stammerers. The foreigners will use just enough foreign words or mixed-up idioms to remind us that they're foreign. We're left with the impression of lots of jargon, babble, stammering or dialect, but when you really look at it, there isn't all that much.

I'm still collecting questions, so keep 'em coming!

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